In The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti- Semitism, former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch has compiled a collection of his responses to anti-Semitism over the past thirty-five years. In collaboration with Rafael Medoff, Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Koch has assembled representative speeches, personal letters, and both private and published essays to illustrate how, as both an elected official and as a citizen, he fought anti-Jewish bigotry. As one would expect of a three-term mayor and before that a long-time member of the U.S. House of Representatives, his files are voluminous, and he has divided his observations into three categories: confronting anti-Semitism in New York City; responding in the United States and abroad; and challenging those who would deny or otherwise minimize the Holocaust.
Koch’s moral compass is always in the “on” position. He is an arbiter (“We have removed the community sanction of social disgrace and it is a disgrace that we have done that”) and an admirer (“the greatest heroes of all times are heroes because they have stood up to evil”), an appraiser (“… our legislators prattle about confronting bias…but when they are given an opportunity to stand up and be counted, they retreat into silence”), and an adversary (“…the salesmen of hate…have brought their racial road show into Crown Heights”). But his most endearing revelations involve his passions: support for those Jews trapped in the Soviet Union; repulsion for the new anti-Semitism (“now most acceptable in intellectual leftist circles”); and reverence for Israel’s role as a sanctuary (“…never again, so long as there is a State of Israel, will the Jews be abandoned as they were during the Holocaust”).
This is vintage Koch: provocative, fervent, controversial, opinionated. The repetitiveness of language in several of his pieces conveys genuineness, because his views are so consistent. But what he also reveals is his concern for why the blot of anti-Semitism requires vigilance and resolute response. Anti-Semitism is not simply a Jewish issue, Koch writes, but a recurring phenomenon meriting a global response: “In the 1930’s, the western European countries concluded Jew-bashing was unimportant. Their inaction ultimately resulted in not only the rise of Nazism in Germany, but willing collaborators in their own backyards.” Zachor! Never again!
On the security of Israel
Noel Kriftcher: In your book you wrote, in 1991, “…our legislatures prattle about confronting bias-racial, ethnic, religious and gender-but when given the chance to stand up and be counted, they retreat into silence.” Who are the heroes who are around today whom you would consider to be the ones who do not remain silent?
Edward I. Koch: Bush. In terms of concern about the security of Israel and the survival of the Jews, there has never been a president as concerned about the security of the State of Israel. Next in line would be Ronald Reagan. Third would be Clinton, and I’m not aware of anyone I could add to that list.
On anti-Semitism at home and abroad
NK: In his book called The Return of Anti-Semitism, Gabriel Schoenfeld writes that what he calls ‘the American exception’ is coming to an end. His feeling is that the surge of anti-Semitism is such that it will eventually reach here. How do you feel about it?
EIK: Well, I keep saying that we are living in the Golden Age here in America, that Jews have risen to the highest of positions…Joe Lieberman was more popular than Gore.…[But] in Europe there’s no question. The shock is in England, the academic class, the upper classes, absolutely terrible, and there was a report that Blair before he left office, got a report from a number of members of Parliament who were not Jewish that they were shocked by the extent of anti-Semitism in Great Britain… Anyway, I hope it’s not true. I’m just keeping my eyes open.
On the importance of remembering the past
NK: You refer a number of times in the book to the importance of remembering the past. Zachor.
EIK: Oh yes, zachor. I’ll tell you what it goes back to. [When I was Mayor] I went every year to the commemoration devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. One of the things that always occurs is about a hundred women are lined up on both sides of the synagogue and they walk down the aisle to light candles for the six million. These are Jewish women who are survivors of the concentration camps, and they’re very tiny women. And I said to myself, ‘My God, how could they have survived? These little, sweet kindly women?’ I was Mayor at the time…where I was sitting in the front row they would stop and touch me. I was overwhelmed. It was so sweet. And I said to myself, ‘We have got to make sure when they’re dead that there is a way for people to understand what happened.’ We see them, but they’re going to be gone, and that’s why it has got to be captured, in books and speeches, on comments, every year.
NK: Why this book, and why now?
EIK: Well, I love writing…I’m not the best writer, but I’m not bad…so I’ll just have to add my contribution. What bothers me is that Jewish kids are not as involved with Israel as they were ten, fifteen years ago, and they should become involved. Not in the sense of aliyah and going there but like me, recognizing that it is a central part of our very existence, because it ensures the continuity of the Jewish people. I know that every night there are communities out there…where the people are frightened and they may have to leave overnight, and only one country will take them. And that’s why we are so concerned about the security of Israel.
JBW: Thank you, Mr. Mayor.